The Fine Print


Photo credit: The New York Times

Under a morphine haze, my 56 year-old mother begged us not to take her home to die.

In the few minutes we’d left her alone, “someone from insurance” had swooped in to her hospital room to tell her all about the hospice section of the local nursing home. Her insurance covered this, they said. She was guaranteed 24/7 care and pain management.

My mother feared dying at home for good reason. Decades earlier her little brother had died of brain cancer, and some of his last hours were spent at home in horrific pain when his meds ran out. She could never un-hear his screams.

The day we moved her to the nursing home, there was a catch. The hospice section was full. No big deal, the nurse manager insisted. Happens all the time. My mother could stay in another room until a hospice bed opened up.

No big deal translated to a very big deal for the insurance company. It did not matter that my mother was signed in for hospice. She was in the wrong bed and they would not pay.

This was our fault. We’d taken the nursing home’s word when we should have read the fine print ourselves.

I recalled my mother’s story last week during the House healthcare debate. The devastation that happens when we buy the story we are told vs. reading the reality in the fine print.

“I will fully admit that I did not [read the bill],” Rep. Chris Collins told CNN after the vote. “But I can assure you my staff did. We have to rely on our staff. I’m very comfortable that we have a solution to the disaster called Obamacare.”

How does he know he has the solution? Would he buy a house without reading the inspection report? Without knowing the amount of his mortgage?

The president tweeted his assurances. We will have “much lower premiums and deductibles while at the same time taking care of pre-existing conditions!” If the president’s promises are true, why did the GOP immediately scrub all information about covering pre-existing conditions from their website?

Award-winning writer and surgeon Atul Gawande has studied the bill in depth. He offers these facts:

  1.  This bill will shift almost $1 trillion in tax relief from the bottom 40% to top 2%;
  2. it will massively increase deductibles and other costs for older and lower income people; and
  3. the bill will increase early deaths so significantly that Social Security will save $3 billion.

President Trump is all about putting points on the board, “We are going to win so much, you people are going to get sick and tired of winning!”

Or maybe we’re just going to get sick.

I am in no way suggesting the original Affordable Care Act is perfect. It needs fixing! So fix it!

But I have a lot of questions for the president. Has he read his own bill? Does he have any idea what’s in it? Or is he trusting Speaker Ryan to hammer out the boring, mundane details that can destroy our lives?

The wealthiest 0.1 percent will receive approx. $200,000 each in tax relief by cutting healthcare for the masses. As much as I am sure this group—a group that includes our billionaire president and several of his staff—is barely scraping by, this blatant stuffing their own pockets is unconscionable.

Trump says being president is harder than he thought it would be, yet he has spent 33 of his first 100 days at Trump-branded properties. Maybe the presidency would be more manageable if he worked more than four days a week. If he stayed at the White House we are already paying for. If he spent less time shooting-the-shit on the golf course and more time reading the fine print of the snake oil he’s selling.

My mother died after only ten days at the nursing home. The right room never became available and her insurance did not pay a dime. Fine print. How would we have paid for her care if she’d lived longer?

The president’s empty huckster act has blistered thin, even with staunch conservatives like Bill Kristol who tweeted after the healthcare vote, “it is embarrassing to have Donald Trump as president.”

It is.

But embarrassing or not, we need the president to succeed. We need him to treat the presidency as more than a photo op, as more than a personal money-making scheme. We need him to understand exactly how his healthcare plan affects real lives.

Let’s hope, unlike Rep. Collins and President Trump, the 13 men on the newly-formed Senate committee fully understand the gravity of their job.

Dear Senate Leader McConnell: Please step up and be the grownups in the room. American lives are literally in your hands.

Art of the Grift



Later, when he’d charm family and friends with stories of how often he broke into my locked, third floor apartment—climbing over the roof, vaulting down to my tiny patio, jimmying the sliding doors— Cousin Bobby would roll with laughter about what an easy mark I was. What a rube! How he ran up my cable bill. How I must have stocked my fridge just for him. That I was always good for gas money.

It was not uncommon for me to come home from work to find Cousin Bobby holed up in my apartment. He lived hours away. He never called in advance. He didn’t have a key. But there he’d be, dirty clothes piled by the washer, something burnt in a skillet on the stove, and Cousin Bobby sprawled on my couch, TV blaring.

Donald Trump reminds me of a more sophisticated Cousin Bobby. Forget The Art of the Deal. Theirs is The Art of the Grift.

In 2012, Trump tweeted, “President Obama’s vacation is costing taxpayers millions of dollars—Unbelievable!” Yet a D.C. watchdog group estimates Trump and his family have already spent more on vacation travel than the Obama and Biden families combined over eight years.

Guarding Trump Tower—where the president has not set foot since the inauguration, but where his wife and son continue to reside—has so far cost taxpayers (that’s you and me) $50 million. Imagine if Michelle Obama had stayed in Chicago with her girls, so they could finish out the school year, at a cost of $500,000 per day.

April is all about taxes, and the most interesting thing about Trump’s taxes—the ones he still refuses to release—is not how much he has, but how much he owes. To whom is our president indebted, and for how much?

And it sure was some coincidence how Ivanka Trump received three trademark approvals from China on the same day she sat with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar a Lago for dinner.

Though, as Cousin Bobby would say, it’s family, and it’s only money.

Since Trump’s inauguration, vacation planning for travel to the U.S. is down. Foreigners normally spend millions sightseeing here, but fears of travel bans, phone history searches, social media monitoring, and being wrongly detained have resulted in a notable decline. A decline we can ill-afford, as the U.S. travel industry employs eight million Americans.

There are those who will say, so what. Those who will argue, like Cousin Bobby, that money is not everything. What real American could have voted for Hillary Clinton with her unsecured emails, Benghazi and a Supreme Court pick on the table?

If it’s the unsecured emails, what, then, should we think of Trump’s continued use of an unsecured cell phone.

How easily could a skilled operative listen to his every phone call? What happens when someone hacks his Twitter account and threatens, say, North Korea or Russia or Iran?

If it’s Benghazi, make note that all of our outposts are currently at risk, as “President Trump has not yet nominated a State Department official to oversee the security of diplomats abroad.”

If it’s abortion, the federal defunding of Planned Parenthood is huge win, right? But free birth control accounts for 34% of Planned Parenthood, preventing an estimated 579,000 unwanted pregnancies per year.

It is a statistical fact that defunding Planned Parenthood will increase, not decrease, the rate of abortions in the U.S.  Are we to be proud of this?

Meanwhile, back at the Mar a Lago resort, our president hides his tax records and vacations on our dime, the First Lady holes-up in Trump Tower, and Ivanka takes a seat next to the Chinese president and gets her trademarks.

What do we get? We get to feel righteous about emails and Benghazi and abortion. We should get t-shirts: Donald Trump went to the White House, and all I got were these lousy, meaningless talking points.

A few years ago, Cousin Bobby showed up needing $1,300 to keep the bank from repossessing his car. For the first time in decades, I said no. And I haven’t heard from him since.

No matter how artful the grift, there comes a point when you’ve had enough of being had. When you learn that the grifter never goes bankrupt. You do.

I imagine Trump, like Cousin Bobby, waxing on behind our backs about how naive we are. What rubes! Laughing, as they say, all the way to the bank.

They don’t call you snowflake at War College



With former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen

It was during a coffee break outside Bliss Hall that an Army colonel from Virginia shared his exasperation with TV news.

“I was in one of those tanks,” he told me, clearly angry, “rolling down a street in Iraq. FOX, CNN, the networks, they all showed us throwing fistfuls of candy to crowds of kids with the caption ‘US troops greeted as liberators.’ I was so dang mad. Those kids weren’t the welcome wagon, they were starving.”

This conversation took place well into my week at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I’d been invited to sit in with 330 colonels (on temporary leave from command) for lessons like The Economics of National Security, Terrorism in the 21st Century, and The Human Dimensions of Warfare.

I’d been instructed personally by the college Commandant that he’d invited me for one reason: to openly share my views, liberal or otherwise, to help his colonels “get a more rounded view on the diverse society they serve.”

“My guys are world-class in debate,” the Commandant warned when I arrived, shaking my hand. “I need you to stand your ground.”

I’ve been thinking lately about my week with the colonels. I wonder what they’d say about a president who tweets about nuclear weapons and North Korea. I wonder what they’d say about a president who talks about eating “the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” while launching missiles.

I wonder, is there any such thing anymore as civilized political debate?

This past weekend, the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll wasn’t canceled but delayed to Monday and decreased by half.

It may sound trivial, but I assure you this event is a very big deal, particularly for its primary invitees: military families. Moms and dads excited to take once-in-a-lifetime photos of their dressed-up little ones running across the White House lawn, playing games with the President and First Lady, and listening to the likes of Robert DeNiro read a bunny book.

But how many military families can take off work on a Monday? And why so few invitees?

Several of the colonels I met at War College had been to events like the Easter Egg Roll, and they had the pictures on their walls to prove it, pictures I spotted when their wives hosted me for backyard barbecues and late night poker games at their kitchen tables.

After their kids were in bed, we got quieter but continued the days’ debates on everything from Limbaugh and Hannity, whom they dismissed outright as infotainment, to our disparate views on presidential powers, torture, the Middle East, and the pros and cons of closing Gitmo.

We agreed. We disagreed. We shared a lot of laughs. But never once, as surprising as it sounds today, did any of them call me a Snowflake or a Libtard or a Whore for Hillary. Not one of them threatened me with physical violence—“maybe one of those refugees you love so much will rape or murder you in your home”—for holding an opposing view.

My husband and I have since visited the colonels in their Pentagon offices. I’ve been inside the offices of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and run from his speeding motorcade. They’ve taken my husband and me out by boat to see our incredible Capitol and monuments lit up, at night, from the water. I’ve hosted them as weekend houseguests.

We differ. And yet, we remain great friends.


On one of my last days at the War College, I followed three colonels out the revolving doors to get some fresh air. We’d been talking about what it was like to have the first black president, and we kept at it on the patio.

It was a colonel who’d deployed several times who said, “Think about it this way. Forty years ago, who would have thought we’d have a black president? Forty years from now, we’ll have a gay president and nobody will care. All the stuff people are fighting about today will have been a big waste of time.”

The world, the colonel assured us, is not black and white. The world is gray. And gray is uncomfortable. Unnerving. Hard work. Gray requires detailed study, other-thinking, and compromise.

It is in the gray where those we most often prejudge and pigeonhole can surprise us, and even earn our respect.

When did Trump start caring about Syria?



Credit: Associated Press

In February 2016, at a town hall in New Hampshire, then-candidate Donald Trump was asked about the Syrian crisis, if he could “look children aged 5, 8, 10, in the face and tell them they can’t go to school here.”

Trump did not hesitate, saying, “I can look in their faces and say ‘You can’t come.’ I’ll look them in the face.” And his answer brought a burst of applause from the crowd.

This statement came just a few months after the lifeless body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy had washed ashore in Turkey, his mother and 5-year-old brother having also drowned.

Like most Americans who saw the recent images of Syrian children chemically bombed and poisoned by their own government, we know these horrors and cruelties cannot be allowed to continue. That something must be done. The question is, what exactly is the right something?

In the wake of U.S. airstrikes in Syria, this would be a good time to know if we — if our allies and our enemies — should take Trump seriously, or literally.

We saw the photos of that drowned 3 year-old boy and heard Trump say coldly to applause, “I can look in their faces and say ‘You can’t come’.” We have all seen image after horrific image of Syrian children living in fear and being pulled lifeless and bloodied from the ruble left by bombs in Aleppo.

And yet, the president had little response.

So why is it now, after this particular attack, that we finally hear Trump say from the White House Rose Garden, “that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact”?

I can’t help but wonder, if it had been Hillary Clinton in the Rose Garden, speaking about the same big impact and then carrying out airstrikes, would we, including Trump, have condemned her for being too predictably hawkish? For responding “like a woman,” emotionally or irrationally?

What are Trump’s beliefs, his principles? The fact is, we do not know, because the president himself does not know.

He was a Democrat until he was a Republican. Pro-choice before deciding he was pro-life. He once said his motto was to hire the best people but not to trust them, but then said he only hires people he trusts.

In 2000, he said, “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” (Trump: The America We Deserve), but changed his tune during his run for president, saying, “I am the strongest person running in favor of the Second Amendment.” (South Carolina, February 15, 2016) The list goes on.

In a Washington Post interview from November 15, 1984, Trump boasted, “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. … I think I know most of it anyway.”

So, we have a president who claims there is no more to learn about missiles; a president who knows more than the generals do; a president who says, “I alone can can fix it”; a president who says about refugee children, “I can look in their faces and say ‘You can’t come.’ I’ll look them in the face.”

We have a president with no guiding ideology and no firm moral compass.

This past week, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against his own citizens, and our president responded within hours by sending in more than 50 tomahawk missiles. Yet the same Syrian regime launched a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013, and Trump tweeted, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”

Maybe this, 77 days into his presidency, was that more important day. Remember, he alone can fix it.

Blinded by wealth, Trumps play while safety net burns



Photo by Susan Walsh – Associated Press

We were on a business trip when I learned Tinker came from money. The plane had started bouncing around the sky and when I reached over to grab her arm, she laughed, “Isn’t this great? Like my daddy says, a day without turbulence is a day without sunshine!”

That’s when Tinker told me about her plane. As in the plane her family owned, the one her daddy flew to their mountain home for skiing and to their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, which she called simply The Vineyard.

I wondered what Tinker would think if I told her I’d never flown, never even been to an airport, before I got this job.

I thought of Tinker as the Obamacare repeal and replace debate heated up. Alongside reports about which programs to eliminate for the poor (emergency services? maternity? prescription drugs?) there were the slick photos of Ivanka Trump and her family on the ski slopes of Aspen, reportedly trailed by a hundred secret service agents.

As Ivanka skied, her unearned, controversial West Wing office vacant, the vote to cut the healthcare safety net for 24 million Americans loomed.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer made it known the president had worked very hard. “He left nothing on the field.” House Speaker Paul Ryan reported, “The president gave his all in this effort. He did everything he possibly could.”

Yet for 7 of the last 8 weekends, the president checked out early most Fridays to hop Air Force One down to Mar a Lago, the exclusive country club he’s christened his Southern White House. Weekends that reportedly cost taxpayers $3 million per trip.

The White House stresses these are working weekends. There are meetings. But can you really claim a working weekend when you send the press pool to the basement while you play a couple rounds of golf?

Ironically, no one was more critical of former president Obama playing golf than Mr. Trump. There are literally dozens of tweets like this one from October 2014: “Can you believe that with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf!”

But no matter. The rabid, cult-like devotion of Mr. Trump’s supporters—people who would never be welcome inside Mar a Lago’s golden gates—does not waver.

Healthcare is a Gordian knot in its complexity and one-sixth of our economy. So I knew we were in trouble when the president said, “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.”

These are words spoken by a man who has never considered deductibles or caps or the terrifying words “out of plan.”

A man who has had lifelong access to any doctor or surgeon or specialist he could ever need, his family could ever need, immediately, and without concern for cost.

A man who, like Tinker’s daddy, casually hops on his plane—the American people’s plane, Air Force One—for $3 million weekend golf trips.

Who knew healthcare could be so complicated? Anyone who has read the small print of a damn insurance policy or has tried to make sense of a hospital bill. And cried.

Tinker was like this. She could talk a good game, but I was the one who worried over details. I knew her daddy had gotten her the job, but I didn’t care. I felt lucky to be in her orbit. Tinker could be oblivious, but she was also charming and funny, and she was so much more confident and comfortable than I was, both in the world and in meetings with powerful men. I imagine Ivanka this way.

Summers, Tinker took her 2 weeks vacation plus an additional unpaid week to spend with her family on The Vineyard, and she was generous enough to invite me. Every summer. “Come on!” she would say, “Just fly out and Daddy will send the car for you. We can sail all day and party all night. And it’s free!”

As much as I wanted to go, as much as I wanted to see The Vineyard and get a peek into that life, I always politely declined. I had to work. Nothing is free. How to tell her I could not even afford the airfare.

On the Side of Angels


Old Notre Dame High School 11-25-2011

Even in the final scene, I am not at home.

I am alone in a friend’s Kelso basement, pulling my Bulldog-blue graduation gown over my head, and their game room is bright with lights. I stare into a wall of beer-themed mirrors, the contents of my makeup bag rolling across their pool table as I line my eyes with a kohl pencil.

My friend’s dad, AJ Schott, walks in and jokes, “Hey there, kiddo. You moving in or just riding to town?”

That was May 1983. After Notre Dame High School saved my life.

Four years earlier, I’d been just one lost girl in a sea of lost boys and girls. And for good reason. My single mother and I had a habit of circling Cape Girardeau like nomads, forever looking to save a few bucks on rent. Who knew where I might end up for high school, or for how long, when by eighth grade I’d already been the new girl at 5 schools: Jackson, May Greene, back to Jackson, to Nell Holcomb, and finally to St. Mary’s.

You never know where you will meet your angel. St. Mary’s is where I met mine. Monsignor Huels made note of one lost girl, and set to work.

The Monsignor found me in the lunch room one day and made an offer. He’d found a family, he said, a family willing to pay 100% of my Notre Dame tuition. For 4 years. Plus books. Anonymously. With no terms for payback and no criteria for keeping up my grades or writing essays or playing sports or even showing up.

If this sounds too good to be true, it was.

And it seems I did everything I could to screw it up.

My grades were, in a word, dismal. I had no math skills and even less interest. Science may as well have been study hall. I read a lot of books, but tossed aside the assigned, classic titles for fat paperbacks by John Saul and Danielle Steele and VC Andrews. I took Spanish because they said I had to, and it showed. I secretly worshipped Ms. King and the casts of her musicals, but I could not carry a tune nor build a set, so what value could I be?

Outside school, my mother and I remained on the move. A few more apartments around Cape, then Kelso.

Yet, without concern for school districts, I could stay at Notre Dame, and the moves mattered less as school mattered more. I began to like my shorthand teacher, Mrs. Glueck, and learned I was not bad at making coded shapes for words. I started reading the books assigned in English class. I even tried math.

As Notre Dame stayed put, so did I. And my first deep roots, invisible as they must have been to my frustrated teachers, stubbornly began to take hold.

Turns out lost girls can take time, test patience. We can wear out the best of you, make you throw up your hands, surrender, move on, give up.

Thank you Notre Dame, for not giving up. For letting me in and for letting me stay. Even when I least deserved it.

As much as I seemed to hate school, school was home. And 4 whole years in one place saved a life and made a difference.

Thank you to my generous, still anonymous, donor family. I eventually went on to finish college and even graduate school. A painfully late bloomer. Your money was not lost, just a slow return on investment.

And thank you AJ Schott who, when you found this lost girl in your Kelso basement in May 1983, make up bag spilling across your pool table, you just made light and loaded her into the family car and drove her to graduation. No questions asked.

You are all, every last one of you, on the side of angels.

The CEO of Fantasy Land



There is a scene in the movie The American President where a lobbyist, played by Annette Bening, tells the chief of staff that if the president believes ludicrous claims about the fossil fuel industry, “then your boss is the chief executive of fantasy land.”

More than a week after President Trump issued a series of Saturday morning tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping, the White House press secretary now asks with a chuckle that we move on and let the following statements, exclamation points and all, slide:

—How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

— Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

We can argue these are merely tweets. The president blowing off steam. But that’s not the way things work when you’re the leader of the free world.

Every word the president utters, whether in speech or in writing or even on Twitter, has the power to wreak havoc or peace. And if the president believes he can accuse a former president of a federal crime, then wait it out and hope everyone forgets and moves on, then he is, as Annette Bening said in the movie, the chief executive of fantasy land.

In the span of two short months, we’ve slid down the rail from “don’t take the president literally, take him seriously,” to having absolutely no idea if anything the president says is fact or fiction.

We still have his unproven claim that three to five million people voted illegally, all of them for Hillary Clinton.

He falsely claims the unemployment rate “is probably 20 percent, but I will tell you, you have some great economists that will tell you it’s 30, 32, and the highest I’ve heard so far is 42 percent,” though economists roundly agree the unemployment rate rests below five percent.

He has never backed off his claim that he saw thousands of Muslims cheering on TV (no such footage exists) when the twin towers fell on September 11.

And how can we forget the seven long years he proclaimed, again without producing a shred of evidence, that President Obama was not born in the U.S.

At a recent White House press briefing, a reporter had to ask, in all seriousness, “When [the president] says something, can we trust that it is real?”

To be fair, we as citizens also have a stake in our fantasies about the president.

If he’s smart enough to not pay taxes, maybe he will pass those smarts over to us.

We remain certain he was a successful businessman, even though he filed for six bankruptcies and refuses to show us his tax returns.

We still believe him when he says he will bring coal jobs back to Kentucky, which is like believing typewriters are going to come back and replace computers, but what choice do we have?

And then there is healthcare.

We’ve learned from the Congressional Budget Office that the president’s replacement for Obamacare will throw approximately 24 million people off their insurance in the next ten years.

This number equals the population of Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma … combined.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich put the fantasy of the new-and-improved healthcare plan into context when he said to NBC’s Chuck Todd, “If I put you on an exchange for your family, and I give you a $4,000 tax credit or a $3,000 tax credit, what kind of insurance are you going to buy for $3,000?”

Yet on March 9, the president tweeted:

Despite what you hear in the press, healthcare is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!

It turns out we no longer need to see the made-up, movie version of The American President. The chief executive of fantasy land is alive and well, and he’s tweeting at us from the White House.